I knew a girl in middle school whose mother constantly reminded her to chew with her lips closed and not talk with food in her mouth. “We can’t hear you with all that food sloshing around in there,” she said. The girl told me she eventually stopped eating altogether. She thought she had to choose.
I have never watched a film or documentary about eating disorders, but when the trailer for “To the Bone” premiered on June 20, I was instantly intrigued; confused, a little, but mostly eager for the film to hit Netflix on July 14. While the trailer offered an interesting depiction of eating disorders, it was met with skepticism and discomfort as critics worried it would fetishize anorexia, not spark a thoughtful conversation as the filmmakers hoped.
In the film, Lily Collins plays Ellen, a twenty-year-old artist and college dropout struggling with anorexia. The film establishes early on that Ellen’s family has been seeking help for her for a long time; she’s been in a number of group homes, therapy sessions and recovery plans. Ellen’s stepmother Susan, played by the phenomenal Carrie Preston, tells Ellen that she has one more shot to “sober up” and gain weight before she is shipped back to her lesbian mother in Arizona.
Ellen’s last hope seems to be Dr. Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves, a doctor with a rather unconventional approach to treatment. Instead of telling patients how to get better, he encourages them to think for themselves and fight for their own lives. Ellen is placed in a group home that Beckham oversees and meets some incredibly weird individuals who also suffer from a variety of EDs.
The film doesn’t glamorize any aspect of an eating disorder. Collins is a beautiful actress, but her character is sunken, depressed and physically distorted. Ellen has deep, dark bags underneath her eyes, bruises on her spine and clothes that barely cling to her skeleton-frame of a body. Director Marti Noxon’s choice to show the reality of Ellen’s disorder versus exploiting its benefits was a good one. She shows how destructive eating disorders can be, even to the most beautiful of actresses. Both Noxon and Collins have recovered from EDs and are using their artistic abilities to pay their knowledge forward.
Ellen starts off very skinny and manages to lose more weight throughout the film. I was never envious of her body and became scared for her well-being. With every sit-up, I held my breath for the fear her spine would crack in two. But her bruised, fragile body and hollow cheeks were more than a creative choice; they are real physical deformities that affect victims of EDs. You don’t just see a girl who complains she’s fat; you see a girl who walks funny because of hips jetting out to the sides, who can’t remember the last time she got her period and who is constantly bundling herself in enough layers of clothing to stay warm.
It’s difficult to joke about something this sensitive, but Noxon weaves smart lines in between a plot thick with emotion without crossing too many lines, which I appreciated because I never shy away from a good joke, no matter how offensive it may come across (did you see the title of my piece?) Although the film has heartfelt moments, it never becomes the kind of self-indulgent, touchy-feely that make you want to gag or yank the characters off their melodramatic soap boxes. The jokes are sprinkled throughout the script so everyone has their ruthless, well-written moment.
The film shows that having an eating disorder doesn’t necessarily mean you starve yourself. Ellen stays in a house with people suffering from a diverse group of EDs. One girl binges on whole jars of peanut butter for every meal, while another girl suffers from bulimia and constantly looks for ways to throw up whatever she eats.
I found it hard to like Ellen. She’s sarcastic, pessimistic and has no desire to help herself or get better. Distaste and frustration aside, I understood her. The film resonates with viewers despite having an unlikeable, narcissistic protagonist. Ellen was not written to be liked—she was written to be an honest depiction of the reality both Collins and Noxon had lived through.
I’ve never formally struggled with an eating disorder, and by “formally” I mean I’ve never been to the doctor or diagnosed or even told my parents. But, I have struggled with self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy. When I was in high school, I started to worry about my body and thought it didn’t look like the bodies of the other girls in my class. I never purged, but there were days I would get home from school and lock myself in our upstairs bathroom…and just sob because I wanted to. I would hunch over the toilet for what felt like hours and desperately try to choke up something, anything. But every time, all I got were watery eyes and a feeling of emptiness. That feeling of blinding insecurity stayed with me through my teens and into my early twenties, but I have my good days too. I like to remind myself of the good days, because it makes the bad days feel farther apart.
I never told anyone because I was unsure of how they would react. I was mostly worried they’d insist I was being dramatic or making it up, so I kept quiet. In this film, I saw a girl like me. Obviously, Ellen had a serious, diagnosed disorder and perpetuated it by starving herself and exercising to the brink of collapsing. Still, I saw bits and pieces of myself. I saw a girl scared of herself, unaware and unsure of her own strength, blinded by her perceived weaknesses.
Without revealing a dastardly spoiler, Ellen eventually finds strength inside herself. She finds the strength to hope, to dream, to desire and continue living. She may not have a firm grasp on her life, but now she’s at least got one hand on the wheel. I’m really excited to see what future projects Noxon has in store for her audience. She seems to have only shared a small part of herself and I have a feeling there’s many more of her experiences to be explored.
The film’s narrative resonated with me largely because Ellen’s struggle wasn’t solely because of her anorexia. She was also maturing, learning how to grow up in a family that clearly still saw her as a helpless child. You don’t have to be a young adult with an eating disorder to understand or appreciate the message of the film, you just have to know what it’s like to grow up.